Create Instant Antiques with Distressing Techniques

Simple steps paint a picture of well-loved furniture.

Distressing techniques fall into two areas: Aging the wood can happen before or after construction, and even between coats of finish. Aging the finish typically occurs after construction or near completion. Consider the look you want, then use the appropriate techniques. 

For example, reclaimed barn boards have a rough texture from years of weather exposure, and were likely painted several times. Much or most of that paint may be gone, leaving a worn, gray board with hints of several paint coats. See the sections titled Give the wood some wear, below; The layered look, Feeling chippy, and Go gray.

A piece sheltered indoors won’t have the weathered texture of barn boards, but may have been refinished several times, without benefit of stripping the piece to bare wood each time (The layered look, Feeling chippy). Each layer likely suffered dents, dings, and scratches that may not have been remedied before the next finish was applied (Give the wood some wear). 

Painting has always been a quick way to rejuvenate a furniture piece. Incomplete surface preparation and wear would cause the paint to chip or peel (Crack under pressure, Feeling chippy). Several layers of paint may exist (The layered look). And if the piece should look as if it sat in a dusty attic for decades, see Dig up some dirt

Give the wood some wear

Woodworkers typically select the best-looking boards they can find for projects. But when creating a distressed look, less-than-perfect boards may be desirable. Knots, chipped edges, end checks, and wild grain can add character. Just make sure the imperfections don’t pose a hazard to those handling the completed project. Filing and sanding them smooth simulates years of wear while removing the potential for snags and splinters. Then, try these methods for creating boards that look as if they’ve survived a rough existence.

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Simulate worm tracks, insect holes, and scratches with screws and nails of various sizes driven through a piece of scrap. Drag the points along the board in short, random directions, and press them down here and there.

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Add dents and gouges by rolling various pieces of hardware and rocks between two boards. Strike the workpiece randomly with a hammer, a length of chain, or other lumber. Lightly sand the dinged-up surface so the edges of the new dents look worn smooth.

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Dents and scratches collect more pigment from the stain, simulating the look of dirt and grime trapped in these areas.

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Re-create the sawmill marks of rough-cut lumber by dragging a board backward across a running bandsaw blade. A 2- to 3-tooth-per-inch blade gives good results.

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Create the texture of weather-beaten wood by using a wire wheel in a drill. It strips away more of the soft earlywood and less of the harder latewood, leaving ridges, and raising a fuzz of wood fibers.

The layered look

 
When a piece has several layers of finish or paint, each of those layers will show through in varying degrees at naturally worn areas. Think of where items were set down too firmly, edges that were handled or rubbed against a wall, surfaces around door and drawer pulls, and where legs and stretchers were kicked by shoes and bumped by brooms or vacuum cleaners.

You can re-create years of distress in minutes with sandpaper. Note that when doing this, dings, dents, and scratches retain the topmost color, as sandpaper doesn’t reach into them. Conversely, flat areas and raised grain, as well as brush strokes and paint glops in base paint layers, will buff away to reveal the color below.

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A coat of yellow (Sherwin-Williams no. 6667 Afterglow) applied over a darker base coat (Sherwin Williams no. 9059 Silken Peacock) provides high contrast, emphasizing the distressing done in the next step.

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After the paint dries, you can add some light distressing, as shown in the first two photos on page 63. Then, sand areas that would have received wear. Varying the sandpaper between 100-, 120-, and 150-grit prevents the wear from looking too uniform.

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If you like, apply a third color (Sherwin-Williams no. 6043 Unfussy Beige shown), brushing or rolling on, as you would for a typical piece. Sand wear areas again after the paint dries.

Feeling chippy 

Another way to remove part of the top layer of paint: Lightly coat edges and corners with petroleum jelly before spraying on the paint. (Brushing or rolling would smear the jelly all over.) After the paint dries, rubbing a shop rag over the item removes the paint wherever the jelly was applied. 

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Work carefully, dabbing on very little petroleum jelly, primarily on corners and edges. We stained this table with Varathane Kona first.

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Roll the rag as you work to prevent the paint from discoloring the freshly revealed edge. If the paint doesn’t remove easily, buff lightly with 150-grit sandpaper.

Crack under pressure


Paint cracks as it ages because it hardens, and wood expands and contracts. Get that look almost instantly with this simple technique. To accentuate the cracks, start by applying a stain or paint that contrasts with the top coat of paint. We applied Sherwin-Williams Classic Cherry stain and painted on Sherwin Williams no. 6667 Afterglow. Work on one horizontal surface at a time, laying the item on its sides, front, and back as needed. Allow the paint to dry before tackling the next surface.

Tip! Add a few drips and runs intentionally to add more texture to the piece. 

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Drizzle white glue over the surface. Spread it unevenly with a foam brush, but cover the entire surface. The uneven coverage varies the crackle pattern.

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As soon as you finish spreading the glue, start applying a moderately heavy coat of paint with a clean brush.

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As the paint dries, cracks develop. If the pattern of cracks isn’t to your liking, scrape off the paint before it dries completely, and repeat the glue and paint applications.

Go gray

Exposure to UV rays in sunlight eventually weathers unprotected wood to gray. Here’s how to accomplish the same look in just a few hours.

When brushing on weathered highlights, below, the brush should be almost dry. Don’t overdo it; this is a tough look to fix if you go too heavy.

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A new oak board weathers to gray in minutes with Varathane’s Weathered Wood finish. Simply brush it on and allow to dry.

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Add more weathered highlights by dabbing a brush in light gray paint. (We used Sherwin-Williams no. 7072 Online.) Tap the brush on a rag before lightly feathering the brush across the piece in short, quick strokes.

A little too distressed? Don’t despair.

One great thing about distressing is the ease of repairs: There’s no need to blend perfectly with the existing finish. On this table apron, we sanded a bit too aggressively. A quick paint application and lightly rubbing the area with a rag, below, re-covers the goof, resulting in a just-right reveal of the layers beneath.

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Dig up some dirt

Dust, spills, and stains accumulate over time to add subtle patina. These techniques provide the finishing touch of authenticity. Start with light touches, then step back frequently and take a look to avoid overdoing the effect. 

To “dirty up” a surface, first, buff on a light, even coat of a clear wax and let it dry. This prevents the dark wax, applied next, from penetrating too deeply, allowing you to gradually build the look. After dabbing a brush in the dark wax, swirl the bristle tips on a piece of cardboard to spread the wax evenly and remove any clumps. Then, feather the brush lightly across the piece, in a series of overlapping, randomly placed Xs.

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Lightly brushed dark wax simulates built-up grime. Concentrate on areas where hands would touch the item (pulls, drawer fronts, doors, handles) and in recessed corners of framed panels and moldings.

Apply flecks of dark stain or paint, below, for even more grime. Stain spreads flat, looking like grease or water spatters; paint allows you to add a hint of another color (or more of one of the base colors). Simulate a water ring by lightly wiping the outside edge of a lid with light brown stain, then just touching it to the table surface.

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Imitate flecks of dirt and fly specks by dabbing the tip of a small brush in dark stain and wiping off most of the stain. Move the brush slowly at varied distances above the surface as you run your finger across the bristles.

Tips for success

■ Practice techniques and color combinations on scrap to build confidence and find the look you like.
■ Small pieces need less distressing. Pieces with more surface area, such as a dining table, allow for more pronounced distressing without looking overdone.
■ If you aren’t satisfied with the results, simply strip away the paint and finish, and begin again. Any remnant of previous attempts will likely enhance new efforts.
■ Work slowly, stepping back often to review the overall distressing effect. A good rule of thumb: Stop before you think you have enough. It’s easier to add a touch more than to undo a touch too much.
■ Aged furniture has few sharp corners remaining. Soften edges and molding details with light sanding before applying a finish. Additional sanding while distressing further rounds these areas. 

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